WNBA All-Star Weekend spotlights Brittney Griner with special jerseys and continues to call for her freedom
CHICAGO — Dozens of Brittney Griners took to the field at Wintrust Arena Sunday morning for the 2022 WNBA All-Star festivities.
“If it’s one of us, it’s all of us,” WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) president Nneka Ogwumike said Friday night on the orange carpet.
And in the second half of the game, it was all. Players from both teams came out of the locker room with new shirts bearing Griner’s name and number 42. They started the match in warm-up t-shirts with similar elements, but played the first half with their own jerseys.
“It was our way of honoring him,” WNBPA Vice President Sue Bird said after Team Wilson’s win. “I hope at some point she sees a picture or something and lets her know that she’s always on our minds and in our hearts. But it’s also a way to make sure other people see his name. Maybe someone turns on the TV and I don’t know the story and I’m like, ‘Oh, why are you all wearing the same shirt number?’ And in those times it raises awareness, and what it does is it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we have their backs, and whatever they need to do to bring Brittney home, we’re behind that.”
Griner’s presence and name were spoken throughout the weekend in Chicago, from a press conference with Al Sharpton to players raising his name even Chance the Rapper wearing it Phoenix Mercury jersey at a publicly streamed concert on AT&T social media. His wife, Cherelle Griner, sat on the court for the All-Star Game. It was hard to miss in one of the few nationally televised contests the WNBA is hosting this season.
“It’s the perfect time,” Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale said ahead of Saturday’s competition at a pop-up pitch at McCormick Place. “ESPN, ABC, we’re prime time, so anytime we can say his name, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Griner was named an honorary star holder while she has been detained in Russia since February. It was her eighth cap and the Wintrust Arena crowd gave her a standing ovation when her name was announced. The WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to a drug charge Thursday in a Russian court, a decision that was expected as part of the strategy to bring her home. It was the day before the festivities began, which many players hailed as some of the best they’ve seen in Chicago.
“I really want to start and reiterate, obviously we’re thinking about Brittney Griner right now,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in her opening remarks to the media before the game. “She remains a huge priority for us. [and] continues to enjoy our full support. Fully focused on getting home safely and as soon as possible of course. She is still with us and our thoughts are with her this weekend.”
His name and the “Bring BG home” design were seen on T-shirts and pins around the arena district throughout the weekend. WNBA event personnel around the field carried the warm-ups so Griner’s name would face the nearly 10,000 in a sold-out arena.
“Obviously [she’s] in our minds,” said Mercury teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith. “It’s our priority in this league. We talk about ‘We Are BG’ and what that means to us, just trying to embody her spirit, carry on her legacy and stay vigilant for her as far as we can in our efforts to help bring her home and really get that message out there.”
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon said she hopes the awareness domestically “may put some pressure on the Russian government to do the right thing and let her go”.
Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in an ongoing war over fears the star could become a political prisoner. Her status as a trailblazer in the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to being a Black American, is seen by some as a reason why she was arrested and in danger. Russian customs officials said she was arrested for vaping cartridges containing hashish oil that were allegedly found in her luggage. His legal team called it an “insignificant amount” after his guilty plea. She faces 10 years in prison.
The invasion prompted the WNBA and players’ agents to help the rest of the league players from Griner’s UMMC Ekaterinburg team leave Russia. The team has since been kicked out of EuroLeague play and its stars have already signed elsewhere, mainly Turkey, for the 2022-23 WNBA offseason. Griner is one of many playing overseas to make up for lower wages in the W that peaked at $119,000 as recently as 2019.
That group includes Belgium’s Emma Meesseman, who played with Griner there for several years and said the name on the shirt was to keep others in mind. Players are already doing it and are worried, she said.
“She’s a very strong person, but these circumstances, you just hope it doesn’t break her,” Meesseman said of Griner, who has spoken publicly about mental health in recent years. “I was very happy to hear from her in the letter and to read that she is hanging on.
“I can only hope it’s over very soon, that we can see her, we can see that she’s okay. It means a lot to us to think about her here almost every day. It’s not only now in All-Star is every day.”
The WNBPA held a press conference Friday before the orange carpet alongside Sharpton and Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The union has demonstrated its power over the past few years and knows how to work collectively towards a goal. Updates on how many days Griner has been held are constant on players’ social profiles and Stewart has done so daily.
Stewart, who played with Griner at Yekaterinburg and has one of the biggest individual platforms in the league, said the union was able to step in, coordinate messaging and “be a major enabler for us to use our voice”.
“We’re all in this fight together to bring her home and I think when you have, like Sue said earlier, that strength in numbers, it makes a bigger splash,” Stewart said. “And we’re getting attention and we’re getting people’s attention and we have to keep asking President Biden and the White House to bring her home.”
Outside of awareness, pressure, and a consistent message, there’s not much the league, the players’ association, or any fan can do. Griner’s trial will continue as is customary in Russia, even with a guilty plea. Players will continue to think of her daily, long after All-Star Weekend and even a WNBA Finals if she’s still not home. And that’s a very likely possibility, according to foreign policy experts.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Brittney Griner,” said A’ja Wilson, named team captain for leading the fan vote. “And so wearing her jersey and letting the world know we’re not whole without her, I think that’s a statement in itself. When we play on ABC and ESPN [we’re] to show it’s real and understand that we’re not going to stop until everyone understands how bad this really is.”